Being self-employed comes with numerous challenges no matter what your health status, however, for those who receive a cancer diagnosis, and the typical, day-to-day challenges of this type of work can suddenly feel overwhelming. If you fall into this category, the tips below can help you develop a game plan for balancing treatment and self-employment that works for you.
Look at the pros and the cons
Employees who meet the requirements of the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act may benefit from the workplace protections they provide. Unfortunately, when you are self-employed those aren’t potential options. However, you likely do have the benefit of having more control over your working hours and environment than those doing shift-based or “9-to-5” type jobs. No one knows if you've illustrated that catalog at 7 a.m. because that’s when you felt best; nor will they be able to tell whether you typed-up that report while sitting in the doctor's waiting room, or in the office, or while lying in bed. You have the ability to maximize location in the way that best serves you.
Step back and take stock
When you first started working for yourself, you likely had a business or launch plan to help you stay organized and on track during those complicated early days. Taking a similar approach after receiving a cancer diagnosis can be similarly helpful to ensure you keep things running smoothly. Wherever you may be in your treatment cycle—including if your treatment has just ended or will be soon—take some time to talk with your health care team about what you can expect in terms of side effects, fatigue, etc. going forward. Make sure to ask specific questions such as whether you should expect any periods of disruption to your work schedule, how intense your side-effects are likely to be, etc.
Once you have this information, review your list of upcoming projects, meetings, other obligations and timelines; and consider what you personally will be able to handle and what you might need help with. If you're a sole proprietor and decide you need an extra set of hands to keep things moving forward, you might tap a trusted colleague or two to pitch-in; and/or consider outside help such as workers from a temp agency. If you have a partner, assistant or other staff who works for you, confer with them to determine if/how they might provide coverage during times you’re not able to be present.
Look over your health package
Some plans' coverage isn't as generous for the self-employed as those in a group plans. For instance, in a managed care plan, co-payments may be higher for the individual plans than for the group plans. If possible, figure out your out-of-pocket expenses and whether you can comfortably cover them.
You also may want to explore what other options might be available on your state's Health Insurance Marketplace to see if there’s another plan available that may provide better coverage. Additionally, there are a number of organizations that may be able to offer financial aid to help with out of pocket expenses, transportation costs, and more.
Think before you tell
Disclosure of your diagnosis to clients or customers is a very personal issue. For those who work at organizations, disclosure of a medical condition may be necessary to obtain protection under FMLA and ADA, but in the self-employed arena, you can decide whom to tell, how much to tell – or whether to share any information at all.
If you are thinking about sharing the news with someone you have a professional relationship with, first consider what your purpose might be in telling them as well as what their potential reaction might be. For example, if you have clients who have been nervous in the past about meeting deadlines or organizing events, you might think carefully how much—if anything—you want to tell them. Additionally, if you know one of your clients or vendors has experience dealing with people who have been diagnosed with cancer or another serious ailment, think about how that individual was viewed and treated. This will give you a clue as to the "culture" you are dealing with and what reactions you might expect.
If you do tell clients, also consider how you want to deliver the message. Remember, it’s entirely up to you how much information you want to share and while share more later, you can’t “unshare” once information is out in the world.
If you do decide to share, try to avoid talking about the unknown parts of your treatment equation. Rather, focus on what you do know – such as time you plan take off from work to recover from surgery, what a modified schedule might look like while you continue working during chemotherapy, etc. Also, because treatment is often fluid, it can be a good idea to mention that what you are sharing is based on what you know today but that things may evolve as things progress; and that you will keep them posted if anything changes that stands to impact the work you are doing for them.
Reactions run the gamut
If you decide to share information about your diagnosis, be prepared for a variety of potential responses from clients. People’s understanding of what it means to have cancer and/or what happens during treatment can vary widely. Some may have preconceived ideas that may cause them to unfairly question your ability to continue to get work done, others may take the news entirely in stride, or responses may fall elsewhere on the spectrum. It’s worth nothing that while clients may work to comprehend and empathize with what’s going on with your health circumstances, they may also, understandably, be thinking about how to keeping their own business running smoothly, so their reactions may be influenced by that as well.
Keeping everything afloat
Exactly what is required to keep specific businesses and projects running after a cancer diagnosis is going to vary from person to person, and you are the person who best understands what is likely to be required to keep the various moving parts moving. Take some time to write down and think through what your specific plan for working through all or part of treatment might look like. As you do this, be realistic and keep in mind that the plan may need to be adapted as treatment progresses. Also, don’t be afraid to seek out and ask for help if needed Take advantage of any advice specific professional organizations and/or clubs you belong to may offer. If a colleague has gone through cancer treatment, ask if you can take him or her for coffee or lunch and discuss practical strategies. Or you can take advantage of such programs as one on shop talk, offered by The National Association for the Self-Employed to members and nonmembers alike. It may also be usefully to speak with a social worker at the cancer center where you are receiving treatment to come up with a plan for continuing to focus on your own self-care.
Sources: Our panel of experts: Carolyn Messner, director of education and training for www.cancercare.org, Gene Fairbrother, lead small business consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed (http://nase.org) and Paul and Sarah Edwards, the authors of several books for self-employed businesspeople.